Namibe, Angola

Namibe is the capital city of Namibe Province in Angola. It is a coastal desert city located in southwestern Angola and was founded in 1840 by the Portuguese colonial administration. The city's current population is 132,900. Namibe has a cool dry climate and desert vegetation due to its proximity to the Namib Desert.

Namibe grew as a fishing port, and by the 1960s, it had 143 fishing boats and several fish processing factories. The port normally handled a major part of the Angolan catch. During 1966-67 a major iron ore terminal was built by the Portuguese at Saco, the bay just 12 km North of Namibe. The client was the Lobito Mining Company, which developed an iron ore mine inland at Cassinga. The Ore Terminal was completed on time within one year and the first 250,000 ton ore carrier docked and loaded with ore in 1967.

After the April 1974 military coup in Lisbon, as the Portuguese Overseas Province of Angola's political situation deteriorated and the independence of the territory seemed inevitable, many Namibe-based fishing boats departed to Portugal with entire crews and their families. Angola become independent from Portugal in 1975, after the Alvor Agreement. During the Angolan Civil War (1975–2002), following the departure of the Portuguese, the mine of Cassinga was controlled by UNITA and the coast by the communist government of the MPLA, so no exports were possible. The port installations were unused but protected by Cuban forces and on the promontory beyond the terminal, Soviet experts installed SAM-3 missile launchers facing the South-West African border in May 1981. When intelligence about this increase in military activity reached the SADF later that year, South African aircraft raided the site to neutralize the missiles.

We landed at Namibe, and headed with a police escort to see the Welwitscha plants in the desert, plus an oasis

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Sources commonly refer to the plant as a "living fossil". This succulent plant can live up to 1,500 years and is only found in a strip of land in the Namib Desert comprising part of Namibia and Angola. It can survive on moisture from fog and dew. It consists of 2 leaves that grow continuously, a stem base and roots. It is thought to be a relic from the Jurassic Period and it has changed very little since then.

The two permanent leaves are unique in the plant kingdom. They are the original leaves from when the plant was a seedling, and they just continue to grow and are never shed. They are leathery, broad, strap-shaped and they lie on the ground becoming torn to ribbons and tattered with age. The stem is low, woody, hollowed-out, obconical in shape and sturdy. It grows to about 500 mm in height. Carbon dating tells us that on average, welwitschias are 500-600 years old, although some of the larger specimens are thought to be 2000 years old. Their estimated lifespan is 400 to 1500 years. Growth occurs annually during the summer months.

Perhaps unfairly labelled as one of the world's ugliest plants, Welwitschia mirabilis certainly caused some bewilderment when first discovered by the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch in 1859 who 'could do nothing but kneel down and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it a figment of the imagination'. Specimens from Welwitsch's expedition, along with further specimens from Thomas Baines, were later sent to Kew, and Joseph Hooker proposed to name the species Welwitschia mirabilis (mirabilis meaning 'wonderful' or 'extraordinary' in Latin) in his honour. With leaves that capture moisture from sea fogs and long taproots that search out any underground water it is well adapted to the harsh arid environments of the Namib Desert where it is found, although recent evidence suggests cause for concern as populations may be under threat from a fungal pathogen.

The population of Welwitschia mirabilis in the wild is reasonably satisfactory at present. Plants in Angola are better protected than those in Namibia, because of the relatively high concentration of land mines in Angola, which keep collectors away. Although Welwitschia mirabilis is not at present immediately threatened, there being abundant populations over a large area, its status is far from secure; its recruitment and growth rates are low, and its range, though wide, covers only a single compact, ecologically limited and vulnerable area. The remarkable longevity of Welwitschia favours its survival of temporary periods adverse to reproduction, but it offers no protection against circumstances of direct threat, such as overgrazing and disease.

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We barrelled back into town behind our police escort. Stopping to see the abandoned cinema construction, it was un-nerving to see the police stop a dual carriageway in both directs to enable us to cross the road and take photos. Then on through the town, past the cathedral to the fort. The fort was built by the Portugese in 1840 when they set up Namibe as a trading post. We were welcomed by a carefully prepared speech in English by a junior officer. The chief was there too and seemed happy to have his photo taken. Then there was just the customary stop at tourist tat stalls before getting back to the ship.

Once aboard, it was an overnight sail to Lobito

On to Lobito, Angola

African Trip